Book Review: At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America
by Philip Dray
Publication Date: Jan 08, 2002
List Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover, 544 pages
Imprint: Random House
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann
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Book Reviewed by Thumper
Before I read the first word on the first page of At The Hands Of Persons Unknown by Philip Dray, as I looked at the book jacket front cover, straight away, my mind's voice (which sounds amazingly like Billie Holiday) started singing, "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree." - Lewis Allen.
Thus, began my journey into our violent past between, on, and about the pages of Philip Dray's excellent historical examination of a true American phenomenon, lynching. I won't say that the book gave me any warm and fuzzy feelings, because it didn't. Dray scrutinizes the justifications that America's white folks used to validate lynching, and the real motives behind the dastardly acts. Cutting through smokescreens, i.e. "protecting our white women from these black brutal beasts", library dust and shame, At The Hands of Persons Unknown provides and unbiased, unflinching, all encompassing view of the basis of lynching and how strongly, intricately the roots of lynching is sewn into the fabric of America's being. Through testimonies, investigative reports, laws passed by the various sessions of Congress, and Supreme Courts ruling; no stones are left undisturbed as Dray studies lynching in all its glory.
Dray touched on points that I had not previously associated with lynching, from the different types of lynching (spectacle and underground) the economic benefits and consequences generated from lynching, the animalistic behavior of white mobs during, before and after a lynching; most importantly, to the strength and quiet rebellion that many of the black communities answered the violation during the Great Depression, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Granted, I'm not as knowledgeable on my history, not to the degree that I believe I should be, but this has to be the first book that I read that followed Ida B. Wells campaign against lynching. I found Wells fascinating. Equally as fascinating was the origin of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Walter White, the United States presidents from Ulysses S. Grant to John Kennedy and how their attitude concerning black folk affected government policies and civil rights laws. It's all here.
At The Hands of Persons Unknown is ambitious, with sources coming out the ying-yang, yet despite the book subject matter, it possesses a light touch. The book is well researched, exhaustedly so, but I didn't feel weighed down by the vast amount of information, nor at anytime did it feel tedious, or boring. At The Hands Of Persons Unknown is a big fat thick book, 463 pages, not counting the Notes section and the index. You all know I have a thick book phobia, which had, instantaneously set me on edge when I initially glanced at the book. Once I started reading the book, I became engrossed in it.
Emotionally, the book was draining. I found myself bouncing from one extreme to another. There were times in which I felt so much sorrow and despair, my soul was sick, hurt. The anger! The anger was so intense and enveloping I declare my vision had a red haze around its perimeter. How can people be so atrocious? Why this type of violence, murder, has to be an affront, a damnable offense to God and all that is Holy! At one point, I laid my head down on my desk and didn't move. My people, my people, I thought, the Hell we have been through.
The book has caused me to re-evaluate our position in American society today. I'm not left with any comforting notions or wishful, Rainbow-Brite expectations. I pondered my previous stand on AA receiving federal reparations, and solidified up my prior opinion. We are not done with our fight for equality, we can't be. After reading At The Hands of Persons Unknown, I am convinced that lynching, and it's deeply seated motivation, and justifications has left its bloody handprints all over America's beating heart and its democracy.